Discussions around business collaboration on sustainability issues are not new.
For as long as I can remember, companies have been talking about working together to fix systemic social and environmental problems.
But for years that’s all it was, largely. Mainly talk, with a pilot project here and there.
Some sectors, like logistics firms and cement companies, among others, went further than most.
But generally collaboration was more discussed than utilised seriously.
Supermarkets have always been too hyper-competitive to do much in the space. Other retailers and FMCG firms have dallied with the idea. Last year it began to look like some of them, driven by leaders such as Unilever, now want to make a serious effort.
Whilst retailers and others were trying to work out whether sustainability was something to compete on (it generally isn’t), industry and issue-specific working groups emerged, tackling everything from palm oil to leather to soy to biofuels.
These continue to be fascinating, but are often held back by a lack of ambition and the pace of the slowest members, not to mention governance issues and conflicts of participant intentions.
So we’ve made some progress. The idea is no longer alien and some firms/sectors are moving ahead tentatively but seriously.
Now, it seems to me, bi-lateral deals and more niche industry groups might start leading the way.
Consider the rumour that Adidas, Nike, Puma and other firms recently targeted by Greenpeace want to collaborate to create an industry-wide solution to toxic supply chain pollution.
This might happen via an entity such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition or another, similar mechanism.
This sounds to me like a potential game-changer on collaboration. It’s an issue where the firms can’t really compete, and where collaboration can deliver a solution to the perennial free-rider problem of a big player staying out of it. Greenpeace will be there to make sure they join in.
In other news, I read today that Ford and Toyota want to collaborate (after a chance meeting of their CEOs, gotta love that), on a hybrid system for trucks in the US. This is highly significant, given trucks are where the profits are right now for US automakers.
It may well be the case that careful collaboration is starting to become much more ‘strategic’. I hesitate to use that word given how much it is mis-used in the the field and generally, but I can’t think of a better one.
I know there are further examples beyond those I have mentioned where collaboration is becoming serious.
Inter-company and sector collaboration has always been of huge interest to me. It’s the only way to solve the capital cost problem of sustainability innovation. (sustainability doesn’t always have to cost more, but adapting practices always does, initially)
It means systems can be changed, whether that’s how trucks are made and designed, or how brand buyers incentivise suppliers to alter production methods.
I’m conscious of sounding hubristic on this issue, but I for one will be keeping a much closer eye on corporate collaborations around sustainability and what they mean for changes across industries and their supply chains.
It feels like around now, is the time when the idea is becoming more of a reality.
Now it’s really getting interesting.